Literary Arts

2023 Literary Arts Prize Winners

The Literary Arts Department is proud of all its winners and applicants. Under each winner's name is the corresponding feedback from the judges. 

Academy of American Poets Prize

For the best poem (up to 10 pages) by an undergraduate or graduate student currently enrolled in the University.

Judge's comments: At its core, "The Dead Vlei" is a trenchant epic for one of the fascinating tokens of the Anthropocene, arranged in contrapuntal vignettes. Traditionally, the scope of an epic is vast, yet these fragments cover so much ground by how much they distil, by how much ground the poem cedes to the reader through its use of white space. Language vivifies the scorched and arid landscape, so alive it becomes that even "the largest dunes loll forward." Poetry that sees well is clear-eyed, restless, and interior. This poem has managed to contain one thousand years of geological activities in less than 60 short lines, transforming a site known for its bareness into a flourishing cradle of succor and civilization and then back again. The before and aftermath are rendered side by side, not as opposites but as two voices and viewpoints woven into a dialogue so that time does not stand still but vanishes into the poem's shifting syntax. 

Kim Ann Arstark Memorial Awards

Two awarded to Graduate Students. Two awarded to Undergraduate Students. For the best poem or poems (up to 20 pages) written in celebration of life by an undergraduate or graduate student currently enrolled in the University.

Judge's comments: Full of density and inventiveness, “OH I WAS GLASSY THE NIGHT I WENT TO HELL” reads like a katabasis where time loses itself and “ease grows in wet air.” There is a thickness to the language that calls to mind the layers of paint in an Abstract Expressionist like Joan Michell, as if the colors of consciousness were being painted out in the shiny fields of hell. Even if this netherworld is a place where the speaker is “all [their] eyes closed reaching into what does not reach back,” it is not a terrifying place, because it is the imagination that has journeyed here, and this imagination is rich and fertile.

Judge's comments: This 16-page sequence shifts between flights of inventive language driven by compelling sound patterns—off-rhymes, alliteration, repetition—and crisp images of the contemporary world, often reflecting the uneasiness of the current state of the world as experienced by the individual human body. Various well-known characters—from Mary Poppins to the Holy Ghost—make cameo appearances along with visitations from ancient Greece to remind us that contemporary culture is simply this moment’s version of a project that’s been in process for millennia.

Judge's comments: This 14-page sequence creates complexities in language in order to expose and explore the complexities of human relationships. Quick shifts and broken bridges often leave us in suspension, allowing intimations of life beyond linguistic expression to permeate the reading mind. This is followed by a four-page sequence “from lymph that touches on the systems that direct living things, from plants to people, tracing interactions in language that open these systems up to new inquiries. Both sequences focus on the potential of language to create new perspectives on the most daily things through novel phrasing and unprecedented combinations. The result is a lively, engaging revelation of poetry’s capacity to deliver the world anew.

Judge's comments: In this ambitious work, words unfold (even if we have been asked to leave our language and shoes at the door) like aromas, like fields of gauze. This is poetry as installation and as ritual, where we are invited into the radiant building and decay between sounds, while “time [is] stitching up from your tailbone.” In the worlds of this poem, things are allowed to exceed their borders most generously, as tears disguise themselves as rain. In that sense, this work, which allows us both the entrance and the exit not as opposites but as simultaneous possibilities, enacts what I hope for from poetry: radical liberation.

The Alex Barry '20 Prize for Speculative Fiction

Awarded to an undergraduate for a manuscript that excels in this form, in memory of Alex Barry, an undergraduate of singular imaginative energy and joyful and unconstrained humor, who brought much to the Literary Arts at Brown during a time of personal hardship, making clear in the process the meaning and purpose of literary writing, not only as personal expressive endeavor but as a gift to the community.

Judge's comments: “Whale Fall” works in mysterious ways. There's a nonchalance in the first person narrator's sharing with us the coming of a Biblical rapture, where the population will be carried off, transformed, as it were, by a supernatural set of actors (also known as angels). Is the neighbor woman, Mrs. Fentaine, trailblazing the way, an angel in human disguise or someone whose grasp of reality has become unsettled? Can day to day schoolyard friendships merit attention (and nurturing) in the face of transfiguration? "I gather the light that belonged to my mother and father and the lovely bodies around me so that the fauna might grow up knowing the warmth of human touch. I put all the goodness I own into the hollows of my marrow," shares the narrator as the rapture builds toward its climax. To make a mark on the world, to be missed, to have been loved is perhaps at the heart of smaller, everyday raptures.

The Alexander Michael Finkelstein Barry '20 Prize for Humor

Awarded each year to one undergraduate for a manuscript that excels in this form, in memory of Alex Barry, an undergraduate of singular imaginative energy and joyful and unconstrained humor, who brought much to the Literary Arts at Brown during a time of personal hardship, making clear in the process the meaning and purpose of literary writing, not only as personal expressive endeavor but as a gift to the community.

The writer’s attention to detail is a rich source of humor and meaning in the short story “Same-Day Delivery.” Through the eccentric narrator's perspective, the writer makes the ordinary extraordinary, and eloquently captures how a pair of old friends' deep connection survives years of estrangement. The world would be happier if our foibles, shame and betrayals could be managed with the writer’s wit, insight and Tootsie Pops.

The Mark Baumer Prize for Language Art

There are two prizes for undergraduates, graduates, (and a third for staff from the Brown community, separately judged). Judges will be selected from the department's graduate alumni. Submissions in any media are welcome, provided they can be read as language art. Cross-disciplinary or digital work is welcome, but any work of language art that engages compositionally with its media will be considered.

Judge's comments: In the darkly humorous and child-like spirit of Mark Baumer, Laika: Edge of Space is a “choose your own adventure” hybrid text game that gives Laika the Space Dog new life in a digital and sonic realm. The piece unfolds from the point of view of Laika, the Soviet space dog hero found on the streets of Moscow and catapulted (quite literally) into other-worldly fame, who we are told is a GOOD DOG. The real story of Laika ends in tragedy where, having had no expectations for returning to Earth, she died onboard Sputnik II, becoming one of the first living beings to go to outer space. In Laika: Edge of Space the blue interactive texts lead us from GOOD DOG to messages of hope and tribute: When duty called, you went. When the stars were open, you flew to them. When the capsule burned, you hardly screamed. And when you woke up here, you promised no force on heaven or earth would keep you from your brave return.

Where is “here” but a strange and cathedral-like structure with a map that helps Laika (the viewer / reader / player) navigate through space, exploring different rooms of this chamber. Is it part horror? I’m not so sure, other than knowing that we are navigating from the point of view of a dead dog wandering on or near the Edge. Some rooms at the Edge smell of dirt, others give a sense of unease, but being a GOOD DOG, we progress through the non-linearity of the narrative, coming across messages like You’re running out of time and Another day passes. Wherever you choose to rest, where you wake up is the same. We click and start our adventure over from the top. Each interaction leads to different outcomes but we, like Laika, are caught in a limbo that becomes profound and slightly morbid as we repeat each day waking up where we left off the night before.

Judge's comments: A minimalist tour de force, ‘on cyan’ is exemplary for its integration of other disciplinary practices with poetic writing. With respect to ways in which the work addresses us as persons – such as, especially, the person who is recalled by this prize – the poem and its color allows us to imagine ourselves capable of being and traveling under the sky and watching it all day, all time: from a point at which we have almost glimpsed the all-light of the sun, and then kept on looking up to see, now and always, the slow, gradual changes of a cloudless day, on through cyan, until we are still living and walking under the same shared sky, in darkness. For example.


As artifact, ‘on cyan’ exists as an artist's book, as a description, a poem, and in a “durational spoken word + video version,” the latter yielding, for this reader, its strongest effects. And the ‘video’ version is also dependent on code that has generated the graded color and ensured a linearity of change which corresponds closely with the inevitable linearity of language in the poem: its distillations of ekphrasis, which also renders the trope dynamic, as the inherently synaesthetic language aligns, over the video's duration, its lived human imagery with the gradually changing color field.

Robert Coover Prize for Innovative Fiction

This contest honors Robert Coover, TB Stowell University Professor Emeritus and esteemed practitioner of innovative fiction. The contest is open to all students currently enrolled in the Graduate Program in Literary Arts. The submission must be a work of fiction (up to 50 pages).

Judge's comments: The eponymous culvert in these pages is at once a loss-charged, aqueous entity of great mystery and considerable beauty and a banal watery conduit many of us would walk past or over, glance at and dismiss from our thoughts. The work does a tremendous job of investing the everyday with a charge of acutely-felt absence that never feels unduly freighted with unearned significance. Here “the vines, the thimbleberries, the tall yellow flowers I couldn’t name, the riparian grasses, the horsetails” are cast in shadow, but this shadow is literal before it is figurative and hits all the harder for it. Things in the world of this tale then are both their mundane selves and reminders of a beloved, seriously troubled and seriously troubling sibling who has vanished without a word. Spare, episodic, judicious (and so all the more trenchant) in its expressions of grief, “The Culvert” does a masterful job of evoking an essential relationship that endures even in the wake of its apparent dissolution. “There was no grounding element between us as young girls. There was only both of us in our own circulating world.” The world of “The Culvert” is a highly memorable one.

Feldman Prizes in Fiction

Two awarded to Graduate Students. Two awarded to Undergraduate Students. For the best story or stories (up to 20 pages). Open to all undergraduate and graduate students currently enrolled in the University.

Judge's comments: If we believe that only the complex is interesting and the writer’s first job is to observe, then we are in on the traits that make this work assert itself toward establishing its place of importance in our crowded minds. With what feels like ease, the writer of this work, calibrates emotional distance in ways that guide language toward unfussy beauty, toward assurance, toward grace. 

Judge's comments: A troubled young writer and mother reaches out to an old mentor, and—in the silence that follows—begins to navigate the pivotal moments of her life, unpacking them like fragile and fractured glass, turning them slowly in her hands for the reader to see. The main character, April, takes us seamlessly through the muddied waters of her present and her past. Her deep longing is the lynchpin of the story, and the key moments when her desires and frustrations, her hopes and her despairs, are revealed illuminate the piece like starry constellations on a cloudy night. The slow reveals and careful pacing are impressive; the heartfelt loneliness and intense self-awareness in the story complete its brilliance.

Judge's comments: The subtle jointing of this work allows us to see the roots of narrative in ancient rituals of dance. The writing here impresses with its capacity to turn, to move on several planes at once … narration, meditation, drama. Quietly poetic, it recalls for us a salient truth—good fiction is always a dynamic amalgam, and writers with the capacity to choreograph allow us to experience prose as a form of labanotation. 

Judge's comments: The subtle jointing of this work allows us to see the roots of narrative in ancient rituals of dance. The writing here impresses with its capacity to turn, to move on several planes at once … narration, meditation, drama. Quietly poetic, it recalls for us a salient truth—good fiction is always a dynamic amalgam, and writers with the capacity to choreograph allow us to experience prose as a form of labanotation. 

Beth Lisa Feldman Prize in Children’s Literature

For the best story or stories written for children 4 to 8 years old (up to 50 pages). Open to all undergraduate and graduate students currently enrolled in the University.

Judge's comments: "Caring for Terra" is a cautionary tale about how human action can undermine our environment, but one laced with hope and a call for action. Through compassion and reason, we learn, we can overcome the challenges caused by industrial pollution and nurture nature back to health. The evocative artwork complements a light rhythmic voice through which the narrative unfurls. How we treat the earth is made understandable and the stakes are made personal in such a way that this story-book may help to educate both the youngest readers as well as the adults who might read it to them.

Frances Mason Harris ’26 Prizes

For a book-length manuscript of poetry or prose fiction by a currently enrolled undergraduate or graduate woman.

Judge's comments: “Bamidar” delivers us into a space where the speaker asserts the right to celebrate herself and her peers within a Jewish tradition where such celebration has historically been problematized. The opening section, “And the Rabbis Said: A Found Dialogue,” conjures the rabbinical conversations we may have previously encountered in The Book of Questions by Edmond Jabès. Those rabbis found in Jabès, too, are quizzical, probing for clarity where only more questions are likely to emerge. Here, the rabbis shift gender — and thus, the questions blossom anew; we encounter new doubts shimmering where the old doubts had already been on display. “According to Jewish Law / this book is written / by people who do not exist” is a reminder how gender and sexuality complexify the history of the questions themselves. This literary opening gesture — to listen to the rabbis — opens up a project where identity is explored adventurously and provocatively. It carries us toward a sense of community and a place of self-assertion: “May my body welcome me home.” “I have to believe in discontinuity” is a reminder that traditions may be bent toward new possibilities, new hopes — a new unsettling and welcome discourse.

Judge's comments: A harsh and brutal tenderness emerges out of the damp forest floor. It flickers in the heavy, fleshy, memories of a girl. Poetic, dark, twitching stalks of light filter through the lush flora, unfurling passionately in a fleshy, dreamy tumbling prose. The reader is entranced. This manuscript is generous, violent, capacious, and grieving. It tracks the contours of grief and names it for the nebulous and shifty creature that it is. The flesh torques, oozes. The narrative form spreads laterally, is itself a wet landscape that places the reader in a thick, dense, bodily topography. The language is threaded with vivid and surprising color – painted on the girl’s lips, on the walls, even the forest itself. The voices of girls, mothers, trees, and birds fill the air in an insistent cacophony. The jagged edges of the lines cut and swerve, stabbing right to the core of things. A Forest, Brutally, is an astonishingly gorgeous work.

Judge's comments: In the wondrous and peculiar manuscript that is titled Room 408, the narrator has an uncanny ability to focus obsessive, sustained attention on minute elements: the precise extrication of fish bones with chopsticks; a dot on a ceiling. The dot grows, itches, and ultimately, in Big Brother fashion, plagues our troubled narrator, who is about to collapse from anxiety in the vicissitudes of early-stage courtship. Time expands, contracts, opens, and closes. Our slyly self-deprecating narrator walks us, with charming neurosis, through a first date, its resulting memories and recollections, and the tender discomfort of the hours and days that follow. Punctuated by a chorus of images creating abstract counterpoint to the text, this work deftly depicts the state of moving between cultures, in a unique love story between two people negotiating a toggled and off-kilter relationship to the city of Seoul, having recently returned here from the US. They are Westernized, but not completely. Attracted, but undecided. It is a book of marvelous, multiple thresholds.

Judge's comments: “On (being) shadow” is a delightful and far-ranging collection of poetry that is stunning in its sense of language, its sense of form, its sense of poetic tradition. As the poet notes, “Every word I hold refuses to root / and each line turns into a translation from a desolate language” – and yet the translation transforms that desolate language into something magical, if forlorn. “so nimble, an inertia” sums up the “incessant shifting like thoughts” that energizes this series of poems. “heavier, a silence / than any other” pulls toward “hidden desire.” What is said and what is not said — each holds our attention. We are carried into the bliss of desolation, and there we cleave to language as if it might just save us or “remember to be devoured.”

John Hawkes Prize in Fiction

This contest honors the memory of John Hawkes, the internationally-recognized author and dedicated professor of creative writing at Brown University. The contest is open to all students currently enrolled in the Graduate Program in Literary Arts. The submission must be a work of fiction (up to 50 pages).

Judge's comments: “where you go, i go too” is a meditative tour-de-force of an uncategorizable story (should we call it, à la Borges, a fiction? Or, à la Lispector, some variety of crônica?). Moving from crisply tracked dailyness, through hangouts with Virginia Woolf and fist fights with Johann Sebastian Bach, to near cosmic rapture over the course of its fewer than ten pages, the work constantly surprises and delights. Boys play games with casual vigor at home in the Bronx at one moment and, at another, a mother, far from home in Tennessee, is forced to walk 20 miles in the hot sun and then take a ride with an overly aromatic, mumble-singing tow-truck driver. Mahler and Schumann play in one place and country music in the other. The what happens of the piece is understated; the vision it enables is capacious. Throughout, the narrator’s attunement, even dedication to the sublime makes the whole glow with uncommonly persuasive light.

Judge's comments: There is a lapidary quality to the prose in “My Mother’s Heads” that makes the whole ring and spark like hard-struck stone.  Humor — of language, of situation — abounds in pages that explore matters (like shoddy post Partition living arrangements or the abandonment, however temporary, of a child) of unambiguous gravity. While some of the characters in the episodes contained herein curate “the luxurious company of bougainvillea, gulmohars and night blooming jasmine,” others look on as their bread turns into “a sagged casualty” and inhabit houses perhaps charitably described as “a collection of unfortunate accidents in line and space.” In episode after episode there is great attention paid to the evocation of a world seen through the eyes of a preternaturally perceptive child (and then young adult), who is nonetheless often, and quite understandably overwhelmed by her circumstances. If the eyebrow of the narrator is often raised, the emotion conveyed throughout remains unmistakable. This is powerful work.

Edwin Honig Memorial Award

One awarded to a Graduate Student. One awarded to an Undergraduate Student. For the best poem or poems (up to 10 pages) in honor of poet, translator and founder of Literary Arts, Edwin Honig.

Judge's comments: The poems gathered here are nuanced in their lyrical dexterity and incisiveness. Remixing the mundane, the poet makes subtle turns to illuminate the ways an ordinary life can signal reordering, and re-imagination. With an ethos of surprise at the center, these poems echo the poet's own words when they write, 'I have been sleeping for so long, I woke up a wonder.’

Judge's comments: “Three poems” is a small manuscript that exhibits the poet’s dexterity in a range of styles — with each poem being something brilliant but little like the others in the set. What binds them? There’s yearning in these works — “in your newfound persistent longing,/never illuminated by light” — and there’s a sense of melancholy hard won. “Pray to the Moon” strikes this reader as a consummate lyric lament — “Starry breath escaping her lungs/flowing,/flowering all the way down/and up./But never,/never to me” — where there’s beauty to behold, but a beauty, like the moon, luminous but beyond the capacity of actually being held.

Levin-Hokin Premium in Screenwriting:

Premium given to honor the best screenplays and film work at Brown University.

Judge's comments: 

Terrance’s short thesis film I PROMISE THIS IS ETHICAL is an exceptional first major work from a highly promising writer/director. Terrance has been honing his screenwriting with passion and diligence throughout his undergraduate years. His subtle and sophisticated comedic voice was distinctive from the start, always working under the surface on a subtextual, thought-provoking level. After working with Terrance on several scripts, it was fantastic to see one come to life, and witness how he could guide actors, and use cinematography, sound and editing, to bring his world to cinematic life. That it included filmmaking challenges such as numerous locations and several scenes at a funeral with a large cast, is especially impressive. 


On the surface, I PROMISE THIS IS ETHICAL is about a young man sent by his boss to a funeral to procure a donation from a wealthy family for the environmental nonprofit they work for. What resonates throughout is how isolated and adrift this recent college graduate seems. He has lost touch with his friends and works for an organization that, however lofty in its goals, appears to just be grinding it out in a shabby, depressing office. A connection he makes at the funeral with an old friend offers hope for change – someone to laugh with, make the grind more bearable, and hopefully help him move on to greener pastures. The film is a subtle ode to connection and to not giving in to factors that make isolation the path of least resistance. 

Judge's comments: It with great pleasure that I recommend Vivian Chun for the Levin-Hokin Premium for Excellence in Screenwriting with respect to the composition and production of her short cross-disciplinary literary film, ‘Primarily Love’. Chun’s video takes on the art of the documentary and lets it speak to us, intimately, about first loves. Her beautifully shot and finely edited short has a relatively simple premise. Allow a group of college friends or acquaintances to speak frankly and openly about what they consider to be their first experience of love. This group of peers and potential if not actual friends is identity- and sexuality-diverse within the constraints of a typical Ivy+ college population but the viewer is immediately struck by affective resonances and narrative correspondences in the stories that these real young people speak to camera. The individuals are always presented on their own, talking to a silent, invisible documentarian who has prompted their romantic self-reflections. The shots are cleverly composed and uniquely situated for the interlocutors, with continuity of situation for each of them: - one of the things that binds the film together formally along with a tendency for the subject to be off-center to the left of the frame. This overall composition helps to enable the primary artistry of the film: in its edits, with the filmmaker cutting between narratives to highlight their correspondences, at times to an extent that makes us wonder whether or not these intimate first-love tales are scripted? Or embellished with coincidental detail by the film’s auteur? Acted even? This uncertainty is most certainly an important aspect of the pleasure that ‘Primarily Love’ offers its viewers. The audio has also been artistically edited with the words of one narrative extending over the occasional cut and a memorable sequence when a single narrator’s story underlies silent moments of strong feeling for all the others. But the filmmaker’s formal artistry never gets in the way of the stories’ intimacies, nor what they recall for us: the perennial encounter with first love: its untold differences and its never-changing primal effects for every human person.

Judge's comments: 

Charles Shi’s honors thesis film SKETCHES OF A FRACTURE is evidence of the deep dive he has taken into his relatively newfound passion for screenwriting and filmmaking. He has been experimenting with slow cinema in both a feature screenplay and his thesis short this year.

His short’s two characters, Fred and Steven, are young artists and housemates. In the first scene, they work on portraits of each other in a studio. This imaging and imagining extends and distorts as the film progresses. Steven fervently projects his ideas and fantasies onto Fred: about who Fred is, what he wants, and about their potential to work closely together as artists into the future. Fred plays along at first, but it’s clear that Steven’s pressures don’t sit well. He ultimately tells Steven that he is turning his attention from art to business.

The film’s slowness highlights Steven’s oppressive qualities. He’s like an occasional but insistent drip from a faucet, holding us and Fred hostage with long silences. Although Fred seems flattered by Steven’s adulation, Charles’s tale leaves us with questions about what ultimately drives Fred away. It could, for example, be Steven’s melancholy and obsessive personality, the romantic undercurrents in their dynamic, or Fred’s fear of his ability to survive as an artist without Steven’s financial resources. In this way, the film gives us thought-provoking options to ponder. We may even root for Steven, and regret that Fred doesn’t share his idealism and passion for pursuing art.

Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop Prizes for Innovative Writing

For literary work, any genre, that best exemplifies the spirit of innovation found in the writings and translations of Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop. Up to 15 pages. Open to all Brown students.

Judge's comments: This lyrical, tender piece about "the pliant line between girlhood and womanhood" and the sorrow of exile straddles several genres: poetry, memoir, the lyric essay. More impressively, it uses the fig tree and the female fig wasp as objective correlatives, guiding us through the cycle of life and death that binds these two organisms together. We see how the wasp "squeezes herself through the hole in the fig to reach a cradle of tiny flowers inside, losing her wings in the process" and dissolving in a soup of enzymes. The narrator, similarly, has left the midwest and is making "a home for [herself] on the edges of the country where the sky pulls wet, silvery buildings from its face to breathe." What will her fate be? We can't say. But this marvelous piece, which blooms with memorable images, shows us how all renewals begin with death.

Judge's comments: "4 Poems" works out of a rhythm of hesitancy — the em-dash is its driving and halting force. What it conveys is a compelling mystery of what we encounter. These poems reside in the micro-event, the oscillating line between an externality examined and an internality summoned. "he follows her — into the store — a gaze floats from — his moth — its shriveled — anticipation of — the glass — oval forehead" makes us attend to language through the clarifying and distorting lens of defamiliarization. That the gaze floats from his moth is (if we read through the em-dash) makes us hear mouth, which would be strange enough for the locus of the gaze; but then, no, it is a moth, which may well be shriveled. We're in a tangle of words, a labyrinth, and one where the emotions run high, are in anticipation, but where we recognize ourselves to never be quite in direct contact — there's the glass intervening (whether an image reflected in a mirror or a transparent barrier) and if a mirror, the oval forehead carries us into the realm of Zukofsky's washstand. While in no way imitating Scalapino or Collobert, this sequence seems to share DNA with these poets, both of whom conveyed the wavering and fraught electricity of life through the wonders of the commonplace.